Monday, February 18, 2008

Professor Amartya Sen (November 3, 1933)

By Kuldip Dhiman

HE was just a little boy when he saw hundreds of people die on the streets of Calcutta. The devastating famine of 1943 took five million lives. Entire villages and towns were wiped out. The experience would torment him all his life: "The streets were full of emaciated looking faces, and people were dying in very large numbers. It made me think about what causes famine, and when I took on the famine work in a formal way 30 years later, I was quite haunted by the memories of that period."

Professor Amartya SenThe sensitive little boy was christened 'Amartya' by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore himself. The poet wouldn't have known at the time that, six decades on, Amartya would go on to fetch a Nobel Prize for his country, just as he himself had done.

Starting as Professor of Economics at Jadavpur University, Professor Sen later joined the Delhi School of Economics, where he taught for eight years. As his career advanced, he found himself working for the London School of Economics, thence he moved to the Harvard University in the US. After a decade he came back to Cambridge as Master of Trinity College. He was also Drummond Professor of Political Economy, thus becoming one of the rare individuals to have worked for Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford!

Having authoured 21 books and nearly 200 research papers on welfare economics, development, decision theory, philosophy, and ethics, and having been hounoured with 28 honourary degrees, Professor Sen is one of the most distinguished economists of the world today.

In his book On Economic Inequality (1973), he proposed that while the poverty line is a common measure of the share of population below a tolerable standard of living, it ignores the levels of deprivation among the poor. He devised, what is now called, the Sen Index, a new formula for poverty index based on income inequality of people below the poverty line.

Even after having lived for decades away from India, Professor Sen has so far declined to give up his Indian citizenship. In fact he still follows political and economic developments with objective detachment. "Local democracy has been undermined by acute inequalities," he rues. "The low involvement of women in local representative institutions such as village panchayats is a clear illustration of this problem. In large parts of the country, local governance is in the hands of upper-caste men from privileged classes, who are only weakly accountable to the community and often end up using local public services as instruments of patronage. In some cases, the rural elite has been known not only to be indifferent to the general promotion of local public, but even to obstruct their expansion, to prevent the empowerment of disadvantaged groups."

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